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Taking the Bull by the Horns



It is celebration time in Plachimada. A small village in Palakkad district in Kerala – Plachimada has gone through a heroic struggle by its inhabitants for eight long years which has culminated to a soothing victory. Plachimada had been at the spotlight to an unequal fight all these years. This was a fight between the utterly weak adivasi people (around 1300 in number) and an awfully strong multinational company – Coca Cola – laden with the wherewithal of money, muscle and media power. It was reminiscent of an atypical fight between countless tiny ants and a mighty python. At the end, the fearless resistance spearheaded by the tribal people has not only resulted in the closure of Coca-Cola factory that caused them a lot of misery, but also forced it to compensate for the damages. Plachimada will certainly go down the history, for showing the way to take the bull by the horns and trouncing the beast of neo-liberalism.
Coca-Cola and its rival Pepsi entered into India as early as in 1993, looking for water markets. The decades-old ban on these soft drinks was lifted when the economic reforms were unleashed in the early 1990s, with Dr. Manmohan Singh at the helm of affairs as Finance Minister. The policymakers were insensitive to the fact that the country was already facing a massive water crisis, and people in one-third of the villages have had to travel 1 or 2 kms to fetch drinking water. The ‘benefits’ of neoliberalism were so much glorified, that the Centre and the state governments were vying with each other, to hand over India’s water resources on a platter to the foreign companies, in the name of “reforms”.
The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd had a sound reason in picking Plachimada for setting up its bottling plant. The place was located between two large reservoirs and satellite surveys by the multinational company had shown vast water reserves in the region. By the year 1999, Coca-Cola got a licence from the Perumatty Gram Panchayat, bought property of 38 acres from a couple of landowners, built a plant on it and sank six bore wells – each 750 to 1000 feet deep. Soon, about 85 truckloads of beverage products (Coke, Sprite, Thumps-Up, Fanta, Mirinda, Maza and Kinley mineral water), each load containing 550 to 600 cases and each case containing 24 bottles, rolled out of the factory gates every day. At full capacity, water was pumped out up to 1.5 million litres a day. Within two years of the establishment of the Coca-Cola plant, Plachimada’s prime asset – ‘water’ – became a scarcity to its own people – as all the wells in the village, which were only 150 to 200 feet deep dried out. The water the villagers were gaining access was terribly bad. It made them suffer from diarrhoea and bouts of giddiness. It caused skin rashes and left their hair oily and sticky. The women found rice becoming yellowish after it was cooked. More than a thousand families were directly affected, as this phenomenon was seen up to three to four kilometres from the plant.
Apart from causing such a colossal gloom to the ill-fated adivasis, the Coca-Cola Company committed a more heinous misdemeanour. Large quantities of solid waste (ETP sludge) was trucked out from the factory and disposed off in the farmlands all around the village. The company officials impressed upon the unsuspecting farmers that it was a good fertiliser. In fact, the sludge had no nitrogen content but dangerous levels of Cadmium and Lead. Cadmium is a known carcinogen, which causes damage to kidneys, while exposure to Lead may result in mental degradation and even death. The farmlands, which had a very good soil quality hitherto, deteriorated rapidly leading to a steep decline in the yield. The fodder and water in Plachimada and surrounding areas were contaminated with copper, cadmium, lead and chromium, more than the admission level by the World Health Oragnisation (WHO).
The Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) has found that the fodder, milk, meat and egg samples collected from Plachimada contained the above elements, at a toxic intensity which would not only affect their quality but also reduce the production levels. In July 2003, a BBC radio-4 report, after carrying out tests at the University of Exeter in Britain, pronounced the sludge as dangerously laden with heavy metals, especially Cadmium and Lead and reported as already contaminating the food chain. The BBC report also quoted Prof. John Henry, leading toxic expert and consultant at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, warning of “devastating consequences for those living near areas where this waste has been dumped and for the thousands who depend on crops produced in these (paddy) fields”.
On April 22, 2002 the adivasis of Plachimada launched a peaceful picketing outside the Coca Cola factory with the demand that the plant be shut down, as it was devastating the ground water – the very source of their survival. True to its capitalist colours, the MNC resorted to physical threats, intimidation, false police cases and arrests…to weaken the resistance. As nothing seemed to work, the corporate media tried to come to the rescue of Coca Cola with a spurious propaganda that the struggle was ‘politically motivated’ and ‘anti-development’. The adivasi women, forming the backbone of the struggle stood the ground and did not waver in their commitment to the resistance. Various NGOs came forward to lend support to the agitation and joined hands to form umbrella organisations like Plachimada Solidarity Committee, Adivasi Samraksana Sangham, etc.
The struggle gained momentum with the support from academicians, educationists, environmentalists and also political parties. What initially started as a struggle for survival by a few hundred tribal villagers had soon grown into a people’s movement against the most powerful corporate giant in the world, the Coca Cola. The sustained campaign led to the cancellation of licence to the Coca-Cola plant which eventually had to shut down since March 2004.
March 22, 2010 is the red-letter-day for Plachimada. A High Power Committee appointed by the state government of Kerala under the state chief secretary K Jayakumar has recommended that Coca-Cola be held liable for Rs. 216.26 crore – for damages caused as a result of the company’s bottling operations in Plachimada. “The Committee has compelling evidence to conclude that the HCBPL has caused serious depletion of the water resources of Plachimada, and has severely contaminated the water and soil,” said the report. “The Committee has come to the conclusion that the Company is responsible for these damages and it is obligatory that they pay the compensation to the affected people for the agricultural losses, health problems, loss of wages, loss of educational opportunities, and the pollution caused to the water resources,” added the report. The report also clarified that the compensation suggested did not include damages as a result of water depletion caused by Coca-Cola, and such damages must be evaluated separately.
In the milieu, where the governments are bending over backwards to attract foreign investments, the pro-people approach by the Kerala government in constituting a high-level committee to look into the charges against Coca Cola is appreciable. It is time, the State government demonstrated the political will by appointing a “dedicated adjudicating agency” (Claims tribunal) as recommended by the High-level Committee, to take up the matter of paying compensation to the affected people in Plachimada.
[The writer is Secretary, Madrasatul Haram – The Muslim Educational & Welfare Society, Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh]

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